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Moving Mountains in Nepal

By Tim Koehn

Faced with insurmountable poverty, there's little that many Nepalis can do to elevate themselves. Against the odds, Vishu Sijali is trying to change that.

Both from emotion and from the campfire smoke clouding the room, Vishu Sijali's eyes teared up as he spoke.

"Shere has dreams too," he said, gesturing toward our stalwart porter devouring his heaping portion of rice and dal in the near dark. "Me and my brother worked hard to have some chance, and he wants the same."

Between handfuls of his ration of dal bhat, Shere was trying to grasp our conversation. The rare times he had spoken during those first two days of my trekking vacation in Nepal's Annapurna Range revealed an English knowledge consisting mainly of "thank you," "good morning," and many humble nods of the head. But if Shere's limited vocabulary increased, his opportunities would greatly improve—and that's exactly what had our guide on the verge of tears.

Sijali wants to help educate the porters that he employs so that they can advance beyond the lowest rungs of the trekking industry. According to a 2012 survey conducted by Porter's Progress UK, this is precisely what porters want the most—empowerment through training in language and customer service.

“This is precisely what porters want the most—empowerment through training in language and customer service.”

From Peru's Inca Trail to Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro, porters working in the tourism industry face dismal working conditions. They often receive minimal training, are poorly paid and don't have proper equipment. Responsible for carrying heavy loads, they are prone to frostbite and altitude sickness, but lack health benefits. Nepalese porters are no exception to these poor conditions—they are reported to suffer four times more accidents and illnesses than Western trekkers.

Sijali, too, has felt the weight of poverty, and that's why he and his brother, Bicky, started Drokpa Expeditions in 2007. Raised in Manali, India, where their parents had been exiled for marrying across caste boundaries, they began working for foreign expedition companies as porters in their mid-teens. Aided by their language skills and knack for customer service, they rose up through the ranks until they decided to start their own guiding business. Two years in, business was running low and the brothers had an opportunity to open a motorcycle repair shop for additional income—until Sijali had a sudden realization.

"I was helping myself," he told me as we descended through sun-mottled forest one day, "and that's what everyone does: helps only themselves—like our government." So, lest he emulate his self-serving government, he opened Barahi Training Centre instead.

It's a tiny place: five or six computers with car-battery electrical backup and one small classroom. It's in a rundown second-floor apartment that's accessed by way of a tiny corridor sandwiched between two shops on the raucous main street. But big steps are being taken inside this small school. In a country where the average adult has only received nine years of formal education, his porters are offered free basic English and computer courses. The same courses (along with Korean and Chinese) are available for paying students at manageable tuition rates and free courses are available for physically disabled locals. This is all possible because Drokpa Expeditions gives 10 per cent of its profits to the centre.

Small training institutes like this are fairly common in Kathmandu and Pokhara, but on my last day in Nepal, I got to witness what makes Sijali's charitable venture so special. It was graduation day: a humble ceremony in a humble place. As a few speeches were given (with awkward translations made for my sake), I watched profound gratitude write itself on the faces of the three young graduates. These 18-year-old villagers, who had skipped a day of rice harvest to make it to the ceremony, cried. They shed tears of gratitude because they had learned how to use Microsoft Word, browse the Internet, and say "Hello-how-are-you-I'm-fine-thank-you." Their basic thirst for knowledge was palpable—it overwhelmed that tiny classroom.

As we parted with Sijali and our porter, Shere, I was impressed again by Shere's permanent smile. This man seemed content, but I know better. He was working with Sijali in hopes of advancing himself in his trade. This opportunity may come easily in North America, but steps like this only happen one way in the developing world.

"We have done some things, Dai," Sijali had told me, addressing me with a term of respect and kinship. Outside, the cloud-cloaked Annapurna range was gradually unveiling its splendor. "But slowly, slowly."

Four months later, I'm sitting with Sijali again, this time in a guesthouse above Thimpu, Bhutan after a seven-day trek. Outside the sun is bright, but a brisk wind is rushing up the valley, making a circle of tattered prayer flags flap like medieval war banners. He's showing me some photos of his daughter Shreeni's first birthday. Instead of giving her gifts, he and his wife brought Shreeni, along with bags of rice and fruit, to a struggling NGO-run nursing home to make a special day for the lonely residents. This man is not typical, I think again. I ask how the Barahi Training Centre is coming along.

"Oh, Dai, not too good." The centre was forced to shut down in a manner characteristic of the region's politics. Some officials showed up claiming that the centre was not a valid institution, despite Sijali's paperwork that proved otherwise. They said they wouldn't press the matter further if Sijali closed the centre and, of course, if they were paid 5,000 Nepali rupees—about 55 dollars.

That graduation day months ago had given me great hope for the centre's success. But sadly, it now seemed to be a well-intentioned humanitarian effort gone awry. Unfazed, Sijali quickly began to tell me about his new organization called Rural Classes. The program brings computers to remote villages for a month-long computer camp that teaches the local school children basic computer skills. Plans are now in place at one village school to convert a storage room into a computer classroom.

As we looked over a copy of the prized government license for Rural Classes, I remembered our porter, Shere, and asked how he was doing. Sijali had been unable to contact him for several months. "I don't know, Dai," he said with resignation, "he's gone."

The thought of Shere's disappearance brought me back to Nepal on the day of our descent into the stunning Mardi Khola valley. It was idyllic but rife with poverty—an under-12-dollars-per-day kind of poverty that, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, still affects over 30 per cent of Nepal's population, mostly in rural areas.

“Their basic thirst for knowledge was palpable—it overwhelmed that tiny classroom.”

The statistic became reality when we stopped to talk with a mother of nine in front of her farmhouse. Her youngest was at her breast and two others were hopping around naked in the garden. Her eldest son had somehow managed to get a visa to one of the Gulf countries to work, but they hadn't heard from him in over a year. They presumed him dead. The father, a millet farmer and blacksmith, struggled to bring in an income due to a physical disability. The pastoral beauty of the farmstead had very nearly concealed the insurmountable poverty. I remember seeing how Sijali was moved and thinking, But here's a young man who could actually do something about this.

Indeed, there's comfort in knowing that the fate of a developing country could possibly rest in the caring hands of its own people. But the best intentions often fall short without funding. The conscientious rich of the world know this: a Canadian couple I trekked with in Bhutan were impressed by Rural Classes and gave Sijali the cash in their pockets before they left. A week before, an eighth-grade class in a privileged private school in nearby Bangladesh pooled together their allowance. Suddenly, there was enough to provide a new computer for Rural Classes. Quick injections of money like this can lead to tangible—but unsustainable—results.

As I board my plane, along with a tiny slice of humanity who can afford a trip to the Kingdom of Bhutan, I wonder how Sijali can begin to move the mountain of his country's poverty. Unable to pay for the short flight back to Nepal himself, he'll have 30-plus hours of grueling bus rides on rough mountain roads to think about it.

 

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